The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, usually known as North Korea, is a state that occupies the northern half of the Korean peninsula. North Korea is a new state, founded in 1948 as a result of the postcolonial settlement handed down by the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR). The United States and the USSR replaced the Japanese in 1945 and divided the peninsula into the American south and the Soviet north. For much of its short history, North Korea was regarded as a Soviet satellite state. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, North Korea’s unique socialism has stood out in the post-Cold War world.
Little is known about North Korea in the United States, or in the world for that matter; except for the rare but striking news story about its international terrorism, the nuclear arms threat, and the devastating famine of recent years, nothing substantial is known about North Korea. This is due to the nation’s strict closed-country policy: not many outsiders have visited there and not many North Koreans have traveled to the outside world.
Widely regarded as one of the few Stalinist regimes persisting into the post-Cold War era, North Korea—along with its culture, history, and society, and the daily lives of its residents—is hidden behind iron curtains. So little is known about North Korea that the country is often demonized in the Western media. This is in a stark contrast to South Korea, from which millions have emigrated to the United States, forming a substantial Korean American population. South Korea and North Korea share a half-century history of confrontation and antagonism, often involving bloodshed, as manifested in the Korean War of 1950-1953. Nevertheless, South and North Korea stem from one nation.
Location and Geography. North Korea shares borders with China and Russia to the north and the military demarcation line with South Korea in the south. The total area measures 46,540 square miles (120,540 square kilometers), with land boundaries of 1,037 miles (1,673 kilometers), and a coastline of 1,547 miles (2,495 kilometers). It is divided into 14 percent arable land, 2 percent permanent cropland, and 61 percent forest- and woodland. The country’s terrain is mostly covered with hills and mountains. The highest point is Mount Paektu, which rises to 9,003 feet (2,744 meters).
North Korea’s capital is P’yongyang. At the founding of North Korea in 1948, it was the only city located in the northern half of the peninsula that had a notable historical heritage going back to the premodern era. Kaesong, which once was an ancient capital of the Koryo kingdom (935–1392), located in the middle of the peninsula, became incorporated into North Korean territory only after the 1953 truce agreement that ended the Korean War. Kaesong, P’yongyang, and Namp’o, a new industrial city, are special cities with independent juridical authorities. The rest of the country is divided into nine provinces.
Demography. As of July 1998, North Korea’s population was 21,234,387, with a sex ratio from birth to the age 15 of 1.05 males per female; 15–64 years, 0.96 males per female; and 65 years and over, 0.44 males per female. The infant mortality rate stood at 87.83 deaths per thousand live births. The life expectancy was 48.88 years for males and 53.88 years for females. The total fertility rate measured 1.6 children born per woman, although the population growth rate was -0.03 percent, likely because of the high infant mortality rate. The population is more or less homogeneously Korean, with a small Chinese community in the north and a few hundred
Japanese who are mainly wives of the Korean and repatriated with their husbands after the war.
Linguistic Affiliation. Technically, North Korea uses the same Korean language as the one spoken in South Korea. The cultural and sociopolitical division of more than half a century, however, pushed the languages in the peninsula far apart, if not in syntax, at least in semantics. When North Korea faced the task of building a new national culture, it faced a serious problem of illiteracy. For example, over 90 percent of women in northern Korea in 1945 were illiterate; they in turn made up 65 percent of the total illiterate population. In order to overcome illiteracy, North Korea adopted the all-Korean script, eliminating the use of Chinese characters.
Traditionally, the Korean language operated on a dual system: in premodern Korea, oral language was indigenous Korean, but the script was classical Chinese. The syntax of the Chinese and Korean languages are distinct and for those who did not have access to formal education, the world of writing was remote and unknowable. In 1444, under the initiative of King Sejong of Yi dynasty Korea, court scholars invented a Korean script named hunminjongum (“the correct sound to be taught the commoners”). The original set consisted of seventeen consonants and eleven vowels. The script represented the phonetic sounds of Korean; using the script, therefore, one could write the language that people actually spoke. The advantage of using this script instead of the classical Chinese was obvious: the former corresponded to the oral utterance of Korean, helping those in lower strata and women express themselves in writing; the latter, consisting of thousands of ideographs which expressed meaning, was monopolized by the highly–ranked in the social strata. For example, the bureaucrats’ qualification examinations and court documentation were all in classical Chinese, while popular stories were written in Korean script.
With more reforms over many centuries, the Korean of the late nineteenth century had developed more vowels and consonants. North Korea inherited this modern form of Korean vernacular script consisting of nineteen consonants and twenty-one vowels. The abolition of the use of Chinese characters from all public printing and writing helped achieved nationwide literacy at a remarkable speed. By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea’s population could read and write Korean sufficiently.
Symbolism. The national symbols, such as the national emblem and flag, were all created in 1948 or thereafter. The North Korean flag consists of three colors: red, blue, and white. The top and bottom edges of the flag are thin blue stripes, paralleled by thinner white stripes, leaving the large middle field red. Toward the left, there is a white disk with a red five-pointed star. There is a national anthem, the Aegukka (“the song of patriotism”), but due to the worship of the longtime national leader, songs that praise Kim Il Sung have more or less replaced the anthem. With the rise of Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, to public office, two songs, each praising Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, began to be sung in public meetings.
North Koreans are strongly loyal to Kim Il Sung’s family, and often refer to North Korea as “one big revolutionary family” with Kim Il Sung as household head. With Kim Il Sung’s death in July 1994, his son Kim Jong Il is widely seen as the successor, although he has not yet assumed the presidency. On public occasions, every individual in North Korea wears a Kim Il Sung badge on the upper left side of the chest as a proof of loyalty; this practice continues even after Kim Il Sung’s death. The type of badge one wears reflects one’s status. It is almost impossible to see a North Korean not wearing a Kim Il Sung badge. The badge has become an important national symbol. Source: www.everyculture.com
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